Getting to Know You
As is often the case, the best way to beat your adversary is by learning as much as you can about them. Even though termite behavior is fascinating in its own right --with some scientists going so far as to claim that colonies are giant, symbiotic organisms which collectively represent an individual-- for our purposes, knowing just some basic facts will be enough to get started.
There are three main types of termites that can affect homes in the U.S., with one - the Formosan - being a particularly nasty subset:
Subterranean termites are the most common and are found, in some way or another, in every U.S. state except Alaska. They cause the most amount of damage because theyre widespread and can infest silently and invisibly.
Drywood termites are the second most common termite class and can do plenty of damage in their own right. They do not require contact with the soil to spread, instead forming their nests in the same wood they are consuming. They are limited in range, preferring warmer climates, such as those found in the southern U.S. and coastal states.
Dampwood termites, on the other hand, only feast on wood that contains significant amounts of moisture. They are much less common than the previously mentioned species, and generally prefer structures that are built close to water or whose wooden foundations are buried in very humid soil.
Formosan termites are a type of subterranean termite and an extremely damaging invasive species in the U.S., mostly concentrated in the southern states. Formosan colonies can grow to be in the hundreds of thousands and feed on any type of cellulose matter (mainly trees and wood), but also in ubiquitous material such as drywall, cardboard, newspapers, and boxes.
According to world-renowned termite expert and Distinguished Professor of Urban Entomology at the University of Florida, Dr. Nan-Yao Su, subterranean termites account for 80% of economic impact, [while] only 20% is caused by drywood termites. Therefore, termite control companies everywhere offer solutions for controlling subterranean termite infestations, while companies located in states such as Florida, Arizona, and southern California, will also provide drywood termite control.
If we look at it from an ecological perspective, termites are one of the most important and useful species on the planet. After all, the amount of otherwise non-recyclable material they consume maintains a balance in the decomposition cycle of our biosphere.
Of course, home or business owners that suddenly find their properties crawling with these pests dont really care about their essential function in planetary ecology. The issue at hand is the infestation itself, and its potential financial impact.
There are many ways termites can affect your well-being and your property.
Subterranean termites are relentless and equipped with an insatiable appetite. They consume any and all material they identify as food. That means worker termites foraging outside the colony search for pieces of wood, cardboard, or even drywall that can serve as sustenance for the rest of their brethren.
Subterranean termites slip through cracks in your home, building tunnels to protect themselves while feasting on any exposed surface they can digest. Areas of high moisture are particularly attractive to them, as well as piles of firewood or trees that lie next to the house where they can set up shop and continue foraging. If they ever sneak into the structures wooden foundation, it can lead to severe and costly damage.
Meanwhile, drywood termites dont build huge colonies on the outside like subterranean termites do. They slip in, unannounced, and target specific pieces of drywood, say a wooden support beam, a floorboard, or a piece of furniture. Once inside, they slowly begin eating away the material, leaving only their droppings as a sign of infestation.
Doug Webb, manager of Technical Services at the Terminix corporate office, told us that an average termite damage claim typically runs at around $8,000 dollars. This includes all types of cases, from run-of-the-mill floorboard replacement to more catastrophic structural damage to the foundation.
However, Mr. Webb warns that, even if you suffer only minimal structural damage, termites can attack and destroy priceless artifacts such as family heirlooms, documents, and photos. The loss of these irreplaceable items can be a heavier blow than any material damage done to the home.
Just as termite damage can make short work of your home, an infestation can take over and wreak havoc on your business. And its not just about the physical space.
As Mr. Webb states, to shut down for repairs is a very real cost to downtime for any business but even more so, something like a warehouse that might be storing high-dollar items [such as electronics or pharmaceuticals]... the termites just get in and eat the boxes, [the products] are going to be unsellable and that can be extremely expensive.
He adds that, in essence, the high cost of a termite infestation in a commercial space not only has to do with the [physical] structure of the business, but also the products they may have in storage.. plus their business records, paper records that can be destroyed.
All this should give business owners pause: choosing termite prevention can be a worthwhile investment when considering the monetary and physical consequences of infestation.
Surprisingly, termites are not harmful to humans in a direct way, meaning that they do not carry diseases and their bites are not toxic or harmful. They are in fact quite clean insects, in part because they are sheltered from outside contact with other organisms, including humans. As they do kick up dirt and allergens when theyre working and building, allergic reactions or asthma attacks can be triggered as a side effect.
And dont worry about any potential harm a termite might inflict on a family pet. Just as they do not pose a physical threat to humans, termites are also harmless to dogs or cats.
Unfortunately, since termites infest quietly and out of view, most damage goes unnoticed for a while before tell-tale signs start to pop up. On the other hand, unless the structure is under attack by the voracious Formosan termite, the damage will be slow to accumulate, giving you time to correctly deal with it.
Alertness is key. If you spot any of the following signs, call a termite control professional immediately to set up an inspection:
Mud tubes are the protective tunnels subterranean termites use to move around when they come out of the soil and into a structure. They are usually about the width of a pencil and remain moist to keep termites from drying up. Dry mud tubes may signal that termites are no longer using them, but does not necessarily mean that they have left the area.
Swarms or piles of discarded wings suggest that flying termites are active in the vicinity. Fully established colonies release hundreds of thousands of reproductive termites during the spring months, looking to start new colonies. Even if they fail to mate and settle in new territory, their presence indicates a nearby, active colony.
Hollow or cracked wood is the most unwanted symptom of a termite infestation. When termites have devoured wood, it becomes hollow and easily punctured, with intricate, maze-like paths weaved throughout. Of course, this is not externally visible until its too late and the wood is already past the point of saving.
Termite droppings, or frass, might seem innocent enough: they look like coffee-grounds or tiny, round pellets. However, since drywood termites dont provide any other visible signal of their activity, looking out for their frass may be the only way to avoid any spread of infestation.
Of course, no matter how vigilant you are, some infestations can occur completely invisible to the naked eye. Thats why preventative measures and regular inspections, which we discuss in detail below, play an important role in stifling termite activity.
The first step to treat any infestation is determining the type of termite that is causing the damage. To do this, an inspection by a professional is highly recommended.
After an inspection, the termite control professional provides an assessment of the situation and presents their plan to deal with it. This course of action depends on a whole range of factors besides the species of termite; it will also depend on the size of the infestation, the construction of the structure, and the layout of the surrounding area.
Dr. Susan Jones, professor of Entomology at The Ohio State University and a termite expert, advises that particularly in the southern states, California, and Hawaii, where you have both subterranean and drywood termites, an inspection is necessary to determine the correct treatment to apply. With subterranean termites, youre dealing with termites that are in the soil, so you concentrate on that soil to deliver the treatment, whereas with drywood termites that dont have that soil contact you dont have to treat the soil at all, rather youre trying to concentrate on the wood where the termites are nesting.
To deal with a subterranean termite infestation, there are basically two schools of thought: either spray the soil with liquid termiticides or set up bait stations.
Liquid spraying is still the most widely used form of termite control and consists of spraying an area with a specific pesticide in order to kill the termites in the ground and create a barrier against them. The most common termiticide currently used is Fipronil, marketed as Termidor, but there are also many other pesticides available, such as Altriset.
Although liquid spraying has been proven to be an effective method for killing the termites it comes in contact with, there are three major drawbacks worth considering:
Even if a liquid soil treatment decimates the termite population, it doesnt completely kill the colony.
To create an effective barrier against termites, the liquid has to protect all possible entry points, particularly the foundation. This usually means either drilling holes or digging a trench around the structure.
Finally, despite the fact that the EPA regulates termiticides, and most states require compliance with their own regulations, these can still be highly toxic chemicals that cause environmental and health issues if not handled correctly.
Baiting systems are a termite control method developed to neutralize the totality of an infestation, all the way down to the colonys queen. Termite control technicians install bait stations along the perimeter of the structure, particularly in places prone to termite traffic. These stations are filled with bait (usually a cellulose-based material such as paper or cardboard) that is laced with a slow-acting poison. The termite worker takes the bait back to the colony where it spreads, killing every member.
Baiting systems are proven to eradicate colonies in their entirety, and its ecological impact is negligible to none. However, proponents of liquid spraying do criticize some perceived disadvantages of bait systems.
It is slow acting. It will not immediately kill the termites in the area, since it requires the workers to actually find the bait stations, feed on them, and return to the colony. This process could take several months.
For bait systems to work, technicians need to routinely visit and inspect the stations, making sure that theyre functioning properly. This makes its a costlier option, requiring annual service contracts in order to guarantee performance.
Well delve into each methods effectiveness and ecological impact later on. In the broadest of terms, liquid systems are cheaper and quicker than bait systems, but they can carry substantial risks and wont completely eliminate the colony.
Drywood termites infest the wood directly, therefore the treatment must be applied directly to the affected area. There are several ways to achieve this:
Whole structure fumigation (or tenting) - Since drywood termites are notoriously difficult to spot, the best way to eliminate a colony inside a home is to fumigate it completely. Termite control companies cover the residence in a tarp, and release the termiticide inside so it seeps into the affected areas. Although effective, it can be a major inconvenience for families that need to vacate the premises and safeguard the home and its contents from the chemicals used.
Spot treatment - This method focuses on a specific area or piece of wood where the infestation is taking place. Its usually done by drilling holes into the wood and injecting termiticide directly. However, there are a variety of different methods that dont rely on the use of chemicals, such as applying direct heat to the spot, a cold treatment that uses liquid nitrogen in the same way, and even microwave treatments.
Additionally, heat treatment can also be applied for the whole structure, though it comes with added precautions so as not to damage the structure or the contents therein.
As part of their treatment options, termite control companies have adopted the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a sort of holistic approach towards pest control.
IPM as a whole is intended to deal with pests problems through multiple perspectives, using common sense and different treatment techniques. This, in turn, leads to reliance in preventative methods, such as minimizing the conditions in which termites thrive, as well as periodic inspections to detect termites before they can gain a foothold in a structure.
In the past, pest control companies would just spray chemicals everywhere in order to treat infestations. These methods were not only extremely harmful to people and the environment, but they werent very effective against re-infestations either.
In contrast, the idea of using IPM techniques is to minimize pesticide use, or at least to use it only when absolutely necessary. Therefore, inspection and monitoring are given top priority.
In a nutshell, IPM is a method for assessing infestations through observable evidence and using that knowledge to craft a specific course of action involving multiple tools, while at the same time limiting the application of chemicals. Its a focused, decision-making process that takes into account every possible factor: from the slope of the structure and the moisture of the surrounding soil to the size of the infestation and the termites activity.
Ultimately, the decision on which method to use comes after the inspection process and the termite control professionals recommendation. Its up to the consumer to decide if its the right choice for their space, budget, and peace of mind.
Of course, if a colony of termites is inexorably eating away at your most valuable possession --your home-- its understandable if youre not much inclined on pausing to consider and compare between alternatives.
However, taking the time to clearly analyze the situation and balance the pros and cons of the multiple options available to you can help minimize both the environmental impact and, in the long run, the possibility of re-infestation.
Due to the incontrovertible fact that human activity is negatively impacting the environment, there is now a growing tendency in all walks of life towards finding ecologically friendly solutions to common problems. This is no different in termite control, with some consumers opting for natural methods when they are viable, or at least choosing options that minimize the ecological impact some treatments can cause.
There are, however, differing views when it comes to defining what these green alternatives are and how they can be used.
Generally speaking, termite control companies consider anything that uses fewer amounts of chemicals, or substances with less toxicity, a green alternative. Most of this stems from their use of IPM techniques, as mentioned above, but this has not always been the case.
During the first half of the 20th century, DDT was the preferred chemical used for pest control. Due to its highly toxic nature, it was regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
After DDT, chlordane was heavily used for termite control. Similarly, numerous studies determined it was also harmful to humans and animals, and it was banned by the EPA in 1988.
Currently, the most common termiticide is Fipronil, marketed under the Termidor brand. Fipronil is approved by the EPA and regulated by state agencies, but its extensive use and possible adverse effects have come under heavy scrutiny. It has been found to be toxic to sea and freshwater fish, and its use in agriculture was blamed as a leading cause of the decimation of bee populations in France during the 1990s.
We spoke with Dr. Nan-Yao Su regarding Fipronils effectiveness, and he stated that Fipronil is highly effective, very toxic, and you dont need a large quantity. If a termite comes in contact with the substance it will die. However, this chemical will not kill the colony. This goes to the heart of the debate between liquid treatment versus bait treatment.
Liquid treatments are less expensive, require less maintenance, and kill termites much quicker. But their ultimate effectiveness, particularly their inability to eliminate a colony in its entirety, and their unsettled safety concerns, should entice consumers to at least consider other alternatives.
If we look at the debate as a cost-benefit issue, Dr. Su says there is no doubt that bait system is much more [cost beneficial] than liquid treatments[because] we know that if you do not have termites, you have zero termite damage potential.
As the inventor of the Sentricon system, Dr. Su is, naturally, a leading advocate of phasing out liquid treatments in favor of bait systems. When asked if he believed federal and state regulations do enough to prevent the usage of harmful chemicals for pest prevention he states that theyre absolutely not doing anything...you would think that having a product thats safe for the environment (bait systems) they would champion it and slowly phase out the other one...but theyre still allowing that old, arcane technology to be used. He continues by saying that unless some politician or consumer group raises the issue and starts pressuring them, they are not going to move.
Dr. Susan Jones provides another perspective. She agrees that in general, the bait [treatments] are more environmentally friendly than soil treatments. But, she adds that as far as the soil treatments go, there are a number of different chemistries registered...considered to be a much safer material, much lower toxicity, in particular the compound Altriset. (According to the products website, when used as directed, Altriset does not present a hazard to humans or domestic animals.)
Furthermore, Dr. Jones believes that we have very effective regulations [regarding] termiticide...and every state has a regulatory agency that is responsive to consumer complaints...from people that have had issues with application of a product.
While this may hold true at the moment, the current mandate of curbing regulations in the EPA is worth keeping an eye on to make sure that effective health and environmental protection is maintained and, whenever possible, expanded.
Not all treatment options need to use termiticides to be effective. When used correctly, natural substances and non-chemical methods can provide a measure of control and resistance against infestation.
Orange oil, the essential oil extracted from the fruits rind, can be applied as a spot treatment for areas infested by termites in order to kill them. However, it is only effective against drywood termites in a limited infestation area and will not work against larger infestations or subterranean termites.
Entomopathogenicnematodes (EPNs), also called beneficial nematodes, are microscopic roundworms that serve as biological pest control for several types of insects, and sometimes used against termites. They are an affordable and popular form of DIY pest control but, as Dr. Jones explains, "research to date has indicated the EPNs are ineffective for termite controlin real-world settings. Termites readily detect dead and dying nest mates and simplywall off areas with nematode-infected termites, hence preventing the spread of EPNs throughout the colony."
Heat and cold treatments are non-chemical methods of termite control that can be administered by licensed technicians. They can be used as spot treatments or for whole structures and are generally used only for drywood termites. Since these treatments call for either high temperatures or the use of liquid nitrogen as a freezing agent, special care needs to be taken so as not to cause damage to the structure.
All these options notwithstanding, in a broad sense, prevention might be the greenest solution of all. But, how should you go about that?
There are many things homeowners can do to reduce the likelihood of termites, says Dr. Jones, including:
Reducing the amount of wood next to the foundation of the structure. Things like using wood-based mulch is not a good idea since its a source of food for termites.
Reducing wood-to-soil contact to minimize the termites ability to transition from the soil to the wood.
Maintaining proper downspouts, making sure they work correctly and that the water is flowing away from the structure.
Not disturbing any soil that has been treated with termiticide or bait stations so as not to destroy the chemical barrier that protects the foundation or nullify the treatments effectiveness.
Reducing moisture around the home by having proper overheads and gutters.
Aside from these helpful suggestions, you should also listen to your termite control specialist and follow their instructions. They may advise you to weatherize your home, for example, by sealing cracks or fixing screens to minimize re-infestation. And its worth mentioning again: do not disturb areas that have been treated with liquid barriers or where bait stations have been installed. This can completely negate any protection they were providing.
On the other hand, sometimes we might get carried away and attempt to treat termite infestations by ourselves. A well-intentioned application of chemicals can actually exacerbate the problem: some treatments, instead of eliminating termites, can force them to spread in different directions, multiplying your problem.
Lastly, if you spot termite activity in a neighbor's house or on public property, notify the neighbor or the local agencies so that they may take steps to resolve the problem, and start setting up your own perimeter barriers to protect yourself.
As weve mentioned, choosing a company that provides satisfaction guarantees is the preferred option. But these guarantees need to be stipulated in the service contract and looked at before signing any piece of paper or committing to a treatment plan.
Many times, the service guarantee requires a yearly inspection which carries an additional cost apart from the treatment applied. Companies will re-treat the area or refund the money as long as the treatment plan is active. Other companies have 30-day guarantees after the initial method is implemented.
Be aware, though, of the language used. Any modifications on your property, such as enhancements, additions, or alterations, can affect the applied method of extermination and void any re-treatment guarantee, preventing proper eradication of the termites. In this sense, we recommend asking the termite control company what type of damage is covered under the guarantee and what the possible voiding factors are.
We interviewed Valerie D., who experienced a termite infestation in her house and contracted the services of a local pest control company. A liquid treatment was agreed upon, which required drilling into some concrete slabs. When a technician accidentally hit a pipe, the area started to flood. Her advice: Make sure that the company you hire guarantees to take responsibility for any damage they might cause. I didnt check beforehand, but was lucky they fixed the problem. If not, I was looking at several hundred dollars worth of damage.
To determine your most cost-effective option, and to make sure that youre getting the treatment you need, we recommend talking to at least three companies. Some offer free online quote processes through which they call you and provide an estimate. However, these estimates do not necessarily reflect your final costs, since a termite control professional must first inspect the problem area and determine a plan of action.
The good news is that many termite control companies offer free inspections. This way you can assess firsthand the way the company works and compare prices and methods with other service providers.
Handling pesticides and using them to treat an area is a regulated activity, and definitely not something that any Tom, Dick or Harry can or should do. Termite control companies must be accredited by the state to be able to operate legally. Customers can and should require accreditation documents or licenses before choosing a provider.
In addition, a detailed data sheet on the materials and chemicals that are used for the treatment should be provided beforehand. Termite control professionals that cannot or will not provide the requested documents should be passed over in favor of those that do.
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